Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

A Practical Guide to Perpetual Peace

| Dec. 19, 2023

How to take realistic (and realist) steps toward a more utopian world order.

It's the holiday season in much of the world, when thoughts typically turn to visions of a better world. Hymns praising peace will be sung in churches, pious sentiments will ring out from pulpits, and religious and secular leaders alike will mark the new year with expressions of hope for the future. Such sentiments will sound hollow, however, if we reflect on the brutal carnage in Gaza, the relentless destruction in Ukraine, the senseless civil war in Sudan, and all the other bloodlettings that are underway around the world. Not to mention the vast resources that countries continue to spend finding more and better ways to kill other human beings.

Can we do anything about this? A few weeks ago, I attended a fascinating seminar on space exploration, and the topic of manned versus unmanned activities came up in the discussion. The speaker observed that sending human beings into orbit, to the moon, and someday to Mars might be worth doing because humans need new and difficult challenges to inspire them.

His comment got me thinking. I believe unmanned space exploration makes more sense than sending people into orbit or to the moon—for reasons my late father laid out here—but maybe we do need lofty and possibly unreachable goals in order to reach new heights of achievement. If so, why not strive for something equally miraculous but a little closer to home? Instead of humans on Mars, why not peace on Earth?

I'm aware of all the obstacles standing in the way of this utopian vision. In a world with no central authority, states will worry about security and take steps to protect themselves, and their efforts to do so will often threaten others and sometimes lead to violence. Uncertainty, ignorance, and various forms of cognitive bias can lead countries to blunder into wars that could and should have been avoided. Some leaders will launch wars to preserve their own power or to leave their mark on history. Nations with long-standing grievances sometimes use force to try to reverse them, and interest groups of various sorts may push for war to enhance their influence, pad their own profits, or advance some special cause of their own. Ideologues convinced that they have discovered the One True Way for societies to be governed will sometimes launch ambitious crusades to impose their beliefs on others.

War's persistence across the millennia calls for humility, even as we grope for solutions. There's no magic wand that can end the scourge of war, but here are a few modest ideas for building a (somewhat) more peaceful world....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“A Practical Guide to Perpetual Peace.” Foreign Policy, December 19, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt